Time for a standardized media warning before showing violent material?

As I was studying for my last final yesterday morning, I turned on CNN only to be greeted by a gentleman bargaining with a gunman, who quickly fired off multiple shots. I’m not sure about the rest of America, but this was certainly not the type of news I wanted to start my day with.

In subsequent hours, I saw the violent footage three more times. The footage was the lede on many additional newscasts and has had over 200,000 hits on YouTube. Perhaps it’s just me, but this is certainly material I don’t want to see. Although thankfully none of the shots fired at the school board members were fatal, the video still contains violent material, with school board members pleading for their lives.

The video brought two main questions to my mind (and because I was currently studying for an exam on Media Effects, the following discussion fits quite seamlessly…) First, are we completely desensitized to this type of violent material? We watch shootings on television all the time; from NCIS to Law & Order to Criminal Minds — our society is obsessed with these dramas that prominently feature violence and crime. Even the local news devotes substantial time to report on violence and crime within our hometowns. However, we see this material all the time and my guess is Americans viewed this material thinking “that’s sad” or “that’s scary” and then quickly moved on. We don’t process this material fully, as we simply bunch it with the hundreds of other violent scenes we’ve experienced on television throughout time.

In recent years, broadcast news channels have had to make many ethical (not legal) decisions about what content to air. Just last year, networks decided to air the video of the Georgian luger who tragically died during an Olympic training run. NBC later decided to withhold that footage from their nightly Olympics newscast, however the damage was already done for the millions who had seen the video on another newscast. In 2003, the media ethics world was abuzz again when the U.S. released photos of Saddam’s two sons who were killed during an initial invasion. These photos were extremely gruesome and aired on multiple networks before some decided to pull them.

All of these incidents prompt the question — should the media have a standardized warning before showing these images? Many times, newscasts will prompt individuals to turn away if they’re about to air controversial material; they will let viewers know that this material may be “hard for some to see” or that it contains “violent images.” They then proceed to push “play” on the material, giving viewers little time to actually leave the room or, even worse, get children to leave the room. I would suggest that the media world take a look into this issue and consider taking strides towards shielding individuals from material they may not want to see. Perhaps news programs should verbally warn viewers what’s about to happen and that verbal warning should be accompanied by a blank screen with the warning as well. Give viewers five seconds to take action and leave the room if they decide to.

The truth is, if someone wants to see material, they’ll be able to find it. If someone goes online to actively search for material, they are personally responsible for whatever they chose to expose themselves to. However, TV networks should reconsider what they’re deciding to feature in their newscast, as their viewers are essentially a passive audience who do not have an immediate choice to view or not view the material they’re exposed to.

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About Abby Ecker

PR pro and healthy living blogger in the First State
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